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Casco Bay: improvements and areas of concern
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“The State of the Bay 2005” report issued recently by the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership (CBEP) based in Portland, Maine, details 14 indicators related to the heavily-populated bay area in southeastern Maine, including combined sewer overflows, shellfish, swimming beaches, waterbirds, sediments, mussels, eelgrass and water quality. While there are positive signs, such as an increase in the amount of eelgrass, there are also concerns, such as low dissolved oxygen in some areas.

At the recent “State of the Bay” conference in Portland, Karen Young, director of CBEP, said it is too early to give Casco Bay a grade based on the indicators. She said the data is more sophisticated than in a 2000 report on environmental conditions in the region and the factors that cause stress to the system, adding, “We anticipate that this report will be the cause for much discussion … in the months ahead.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated Casco Bay an estuary of national significance in 1990. It encompasses about 200 square miles and 3 percent of Maine's land area, although 25 percent of the state's population lives in the area. “The water quality is generally good, but there are areas of concern,” said Scott Libby, research specialist at Battelle Ocean Sciences in Brunswick, Maine. One such area cited by the report is the low level of dissolved oxygen in some waters. Dissolved oxygen is a good indicator of the overall water quality. Pollution, for example, can lower the levels of dissolved oxygen to a point where aquatic plants and animals can be harmed.

Lee Doggett, a marine biologist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in Augusta, said that most contaminants in sediments have been decreasing since initial sampling in Casco Bay in the 1980s, with the exception of silver, which has increased over time. Total pesticides also have decreased over time, as have total polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were once used in coolants. However, planar PCBs, which are the so-called “bad” PCBs, remained at the same level or declined slightly. Some scientists suspect the increase in silver may have been due to storms that kicked up sediment and moved already present silver around.

There has been mixed news for eelgrass, a flowering plant that grows rooted in the sediment in shallow waters. It is an important habitat for fish and it helps to protect shorelines. The amount of eelgrass increased in the bay area overall from 7, 056 acres in 1993 and 1994 to 8,248 acres in 2001 and 2002. The increase came mostly in the northeastern end of the bay, particularly in eelgrass beds in Maquoit Bay. But eelgrass declined elsewhere, such as in Broad Cove.

Maquoit Bay is another mixed story for eelgrass. It came into focus when eelgrass started washing up on the beach in 2001, according to Hilary Neckles, coastal research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Augusta. The reason: fishermen who were dragging for mussels had stripped about 10 percent of the eelgrass in the area, or 53 acres out of a total of 535 acres.

The drag scars from the mussel harvesting could be seen in aerial photos. However, even the biggest drag scar, which was 150-meters across, could be regrown. The problem is the time it takes to do so. As it turned out, the dragging didn't disturb the sediment, so recovery of the eelgrass was possible, even though under the best of conditions it takes about 11 years. Since few people drag for mussels - only about 10 percent, Neckles said dragging isn't necessary to the survival of the mussel industry. “It's better to just stop the practice, because we lose habitat for 11 years,” she said.

For more information go to www.cascobayestuary.org.

Allens Pond wildlife habitat preserved

A 104-acre property in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, south of Boston, was deemed ecologically significant by three agencies and will be protected as one of the few pristine coastal salt ponds remaining in southern New England. The Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said the property has 1,500 feet [458 meters] of frontage on Allens Pond, and will become part of Mass Audubon's Allens Pond Wildlife Sanctuary.

The sanctuary houses rare plants and hundreds of bird species including peregrine falcons, least terns, bald eagles, short-eared owls and piping plovers. The purchase of the property creates a contiguous block of 1,000 acres [400 hectares] of protected habitat along the shoreline of Buzzards Bay in Cape Cod. The acreage includes salt marshes, coastal oak woodlands, heath and grasslands.

Key funding for the project came from the conveyance of a conservation restriction on the property to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) for $850,000. The state's purchase was made possible by a $600,000 grant to the DCR from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program.

Mass Audubon, which has been leading the fundraising campaign to buy the land and manage it long-term, also credited landowner Gil Fernandez, a long-time bird conservationist who with his late wife was instrumental in reestablishing ospreys on the Buzzards Bay coast by building and maintaining nesting platforms.

For more information contact Sally Sharp Lehman, regional director, Mass Audubon, at sslehman@massaudubon.org.

Bluefin tuna quality declines

Bluefin tuna have not only been more difficult to catch in the Gulf of Maine in recent years, they have also become smaller and leaner. That's according to University of New Hampshire (UNH) scientists who have studied data collected for 14 years by the Yankee Fishermen's Cooperative in Seabrook, New Hampshire, a major port for bluefin catches.

It still isn't clear why bluefin tuna, which can swim across the entire Gulf of Maine in a day and a half eating just about anything in their path including three-foot dogfish and sculpins, are becoming lower grade, according to Walter Golet, a zoologist and principal scientist in UNH's Large Pelagics Research Lab. It could be anything from changed bait, including a lesser reliance on herring, to a change in migration patterns that means tuna may be coming from further away, and/or a change in spawning areas.

Golet, along with UNH colleagues Molly Lutcavage and Andy Cooper, as well as Bob Campbell from the Yankee Fishermen's Cooperative, are in the process of trying to get a paper on their findings called “Decline in Condition Factor of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna in the Gulf of Maine,” published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. They first announced their findings in May at the 56th International Tuna Conference in Lake Arrowhead, California.

Golet said the findings weren't too surprising, because other New England fishermen had reported anecdotal evidence of skinnier fish. And John Neilson, research scientist at the Fisheries and Oceans Canada Marine Fisheries Division in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, had recorded similar declines in his measurements of length and weight in log books. Campbell of the Yankee Fishermen's Cooperative added grade information to that of length and weight, and did it for 14 years. That's important, because it is difficult to see such changes in only a few years' time, Golet said.

Bluefin grading practices vary depending on who does the grading, but the researchers looked at fat/oil content and shape, which they deemed the best indicators of the overall condition of the fish. They analyzed Campbell's observations from 1991 to 2004 of 3,834 different fish for fat/oil content and 3,082 fish for shape.

For more information see www.tunalab.unh.edu/.

Haddock prefer prefab bait to hot dogs

The Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association (CCCHFA) is trying to balance the needs of the commercial fishing industry with the efforts of fishery management councils to rebuild the codfish stock. CCCHFA research director Tom Rudolph has been working with support from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Cooperative Partner's Research Program on prefabricated fish bait that will target haddock and result in a low bycatch of cod.

Initially his group collaborated with Dr. Susan Goldhor of the Center for Applied Regional Studies to make a sausage-like bait of herring waste called “offal” that was modeled after similar bait already made in Norway and Alaska. The bait, shaped like a long sausage, is cut into quarter-inch pieces about an inch in diameter. The CCCHFA decided it was easier to buy the bait, which initially was in short supply, from the manufacturer in Norway. The bait costs about double that of food-grade squid or clams, but there is less waste from herring heads and tails, and the bait stays on the hooks better, said Melissa Sanderson, program coordinator at CCCHFA in North Chatham, Massachusetts.

Ten fishing boats, primarily in Maine and Massachusetts, involving about 10 fishermen, are testing the bait. The tests were cut short on September 2, when NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service closed a part of Georges Bank to groundfishing after the codfish quota for the year was reached. However, the CCCHFA was allowed back into the area at the end of October to complete its tests on haddock, a stock that is projected to be fully recovered by 2008. Its permits to complete the research expire in February 2006.

Haddock, which are scavengers, will eat just about anything, including the prefabricated bait, although they did reject hot dogs, said Sanderson. “The fabricated bait works not necessarily because the haddock prefer it, but because the cod don't,” she said. For more information see www.ccchfa.org/pages/2/20/.

© 2005 The Gulf of Maine Times